What we know today as the First Amendment was first proposed by the Virginia state ratifying convention during its approval of the Constitution in June 1788. The Virginia resolution declared that the free exercise of religious worship could not “be cancelled, abridged, restrained or modified” by the new federal Congress, nor could any other essential rights, including “liberty of conscience and of the press.” James Madison drafted the formal amendment to adopt these principles, and the addition was finally ratified by the states on March 1, 1792:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Madison believed that the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment were the source “for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity, over error and oppression.” Even so, the new nation experienced backslides into censorship from the very beginning. The Alien and Sedition Acts were passed in 1798, and mobs gathered to suppress political speech in New York and Baltimore in 1804, 1810, 1811, and 1815. In 1835 alone, there were 147 political riots in the United States, leading to the deaths of 63 people. An 1837 riot in Alton, Illinois, caused the death of the abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy and prompted the first great political speech of the up-and-coming Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln. Not until after World War I did the U.S. Supreme Court finally and unambiguously prohibit censorship, saying in Abrams v. United States (1919) that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”